The Great Commission of Jesus Christ can be understood in three parts. Make no mistake, its one command, yet it contains three significant elements. Jesus said that we are to make a lifestyle of gospel proclamation. Those who respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ are then to publicly profess faith in Jesus through the waters of baptism, thus identifying with Christ as Lord and Master of their lives. After those two steps, Jesus then said we are to teach obedience to his commands. Sometimes we soften this final component through nomenclature like discipleship or spiritual formation. Those are great words that we should not throw away, but we cannot forget that at the root of discipleship and becoming spiritually formed is a lifestyle of obedience to Christ.
How then do we teach obedience?
In the initial stages we obey because we have to. Plain and simple rote obedience, primarily motivated by a sense of obligation that seeks to avoid punishment. As we mature we then begin to obey because we understand that we need to. Here, we may view obedience as our response to God that is motivated by personal benefit we may receive. In other words, we see the value of obedience, determine it is good for us, and practice obedience for our own good. But as we mature further we move past obeying because we need to and obey Christ because we want to. This is the simple motivation of love. We no longer obey because we have to or need to, we obey because we want to. We want to obey because we love Christ and want to please him. Rather than finding our motivation in some element of personal fulfillment, we seek to obey for the glory of God.
Thinking about this I believe it can be easily illustrated in parenting. As a parent of three teenagers, I’ve seen this evolution first hand. When you have a preschooler, you teach them to obey because they have to obey. There is no democracy with a preschooler in the house! You don’t want your toddler running out into the street or wandering off in stores or sticking paper clips into electrical outlets so you teach them that they have to obey.
As the child gets older and communication becomes easier and more natural, they begin to obey because they need to. Want to go to the movies? Clean your room. Want an allowance? Do your chores. Want to have a sleepover? Get your homework done. Children understand the value of obedience because they perceive obedience is good for them.
But wait, there’s more! Children don’t stay children, they continue to grow and mature. As your relationship with your child matures, they value you as a person as well as a parent. They understand that you love them and have their best interest at heart. They also learn that your love for them is so deep that you would literally give your life for them. That’s when they begin to obey because they love you and want to please you and don’t want anything to come between you.
Jesus said that his church is to teach obedience. But obedience for the sake of obedience is often reduced to legalism. The goal is not obedience in and of itself. The goal is a love relationship with Jesus Christ, where your life in Christ is natural and your obedience is reflexive. My point is that you don’t start there. But you can certainly get there. It just takes some time and commitment.
“Then He (Jesus) returned to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51).
“When He appeared in human form, he (Jesus) humbled himself in obedience to God” (Philippians 2:7).
“Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).